I hear a lot of pretty hip ideas when I’m checking out some of my favorite soloists in jazz. Whenever I go back and try to catch the lick, I almost always have the same reaction, “oh, it’s a triad.” It’s amazing how often you here this essential building blocks of harmony in the middle of great jazz lines. It makes sense though, right? All harmony comes from the same 12 notes, and if we’re realistically talking about all chords being forms of stacked thirds, triads are going to wind up in the extensions of all kinds of chords. So why not utilize these to create intervallic ideas in your playing?
I have students ask me “what book they should get on triad pairs?” Or, “can we talk about that YouTube video where that guy is talking about all the combinations of triad pairs?” Yes, there are good books, and triad pairs are super cool, but let’s take a step back. Why not address using a single triad to create harmonic ideas first? Look, if it was good enough for Wes Montgomery it should be good enough for all of us.
One of the first things to cover on this subject, just to give us an idea of how important a triad can be, and how crazy they can sound, is to check out the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band (at the very least listen to the head to Don’t Git Sassy). Between the bones and trumpets Thad likes to use what is quickly referred to as triad over function. Trombones get the essential notes of the chord (Root, third, and seventh) and trumpets get a triad on top of that sound the upper extensions. It gives us an incredibly thick sound. Depending on the triad you pick you can wind up with a pretty slick voicing. After you’ve done a little listening homework. Let’s go check out a related piano player. If you don’t know the album “Ben & Sweets,” that’s next. Thad’s older brother, Hank Jones is the pianist on this. If you’re wondering where Thad got this voicing style just check out Hank’s comping on this record. Left hand if often going to lock down the “function” of the chord (third and seventh) and in the right hand you get the upper structure voicings in the form of a triad.
Triads allow us to be incredibly specific to jazz harmony, which is essential to making the people around you sound better, our primary focus in a jazz group. This includes both comping and improvised lines. How do I get these in my lines? Let’s return to Wes Montgomery. Check out his solo on “Days of Wine and Roses” from the album Boss Guitar. At the 1:39 mark against a Gmin7 chord Wes plays a triplet idea that is merely a D minor triad. That gives us the 5th(D), 7th(F), and 9th(A) of a Gmin9. You’re only adding one extension, but the intervallic nature of the triad gives it a really hip sound. Next up, check out Freddie Hubbard on “You’re My Everything” from the album Hubtones. At the 2:10 mark Freddie gets a clear D13#11 from Herbie Hancock and answers with an E major triad. This gives him the 9th(E), #11th(G#) and 13th(B) extensions. Again, the intervallic nature of the triad gives him a very cool sound. Let’s find one of these in a line. Check out Peter Bernstein on “Lady Bird” from the Melvin Rhyne album Stick to the Kick. At the 2:45 mark we get a combination of a Bb minor triad and a C major triad in the middle of at ii-V-I lick in the key of Eb major. The Bb minor triad opens the idea over a Bbmin7 chord. The V chord is an Eb7, here Peter plays a C major triad. The C major triad represents the 13th(C), b9 (E), and 3rd (G) giving us a diminished sound against the Eb7 chord that is then resolved to the I, Abmaj7.
By begging to hear these ideas in improvisers playing, we can then start to understand how to use them. The next challenge is to build yourself a chart of triads against given chords. Take a G7 chord and find each major and minor triad that works against that chord. Leave out any triad that has a major 7th (F#) or a 4th (C). Those are the two notes that will NOT work against a dominant chord. Let’s do one of these together. Against a G7 chord lets start with an Ab major triad, Ab, C (big nasty buzzer sounds). C disqualifies the Ab major triad because it would be the 4th against a G7. One of our two avoid notes. Next is A major triad, A, C#, E... No buzzer sounds? Are we clear. Those notes all work! A 9th #11th and 13th. Cool! That one goes on our chart. Keep going on your own.
Once you have found all the triads that don’t have those notes then map out the extensions created by each. This should give you a pretty good understanding of the triad “web.”
I have a course that covers this material in depth here on Musiclessons.com in which I go over how to play triads from each inversion on the guitar neck with repeatable picking patterns and include downloadable PDF’s of triad licks and chart of traids, their extensions, and the related parent scale.